Monday, April 21, 2008

Want Better Museum Conferences? How About Pecha-Kucha Or "A Day Without PowerPoint"?

Soon two of the big museum conferences, The Association of Children's Museums (ACM) and The American Association of Museums (AAM) will be taking place in Denver. And many, if not most, of the presenters at both these conferences will be packing a laptop loaded with PowerPoint presentations.

Even if each of these PowerPoint presentations is able to start smoothly without technical glitches involving projectors, connectors, and software, usually a big IF, I'll ask the question many of the folks trapped in the conference rooms will be thinking: "Why are some of the most creative people in the world using such powerful computer technology to present such boring, non-interactive speeches?"

Honestly, when is the last time you did something more at a conference presentation than sit on your fanny and stare at the screen and speakers on the dais for 75 minutes or so before the moderator apologizes for running long and leaves only time for one or two audience questions, if any? Most of the time, the talks could have easily been given, and often greatly improved, by eliminating PowerPoint.

Couldn't we just BAN PowerPoint from Conference Presentations?

Lest you think I'm a raving Luddite, I happily embrace computers and technology in all facets of the museum world, but I just think that the staid PowerPoint approach stifles creative presentations and dialogue between conference participants. (And, after all, even such eminent thinkers as David Byrne and Edward Tufte have wildly different takes on the topic.)

Even if you don't believe the museum world is ready to go "cold turkey" on PowerPoint, there are less drastic alternatives.

Mary Case, of Qm2, put me onto a short WIRED magazine article (and video example, seen at the top of this posting) about a presentation technique called "pecha-kucha." As the article notes, pecha-kucha (Japanese for "chatter") applies a simple set of rules to presentations: exactly 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. That's it. Say what you need to say in six minutes and 40 seconds of exquisitely matched words and images and then sit the hell down. As a quick Google search indicates, pecha-kucha is catching on around the world. Why not give it a try at museum conferences to wean us off of bloated corporate-style presentations?

Another way to open up the conference format to alternative presentation styles may be as simple as "A Day Without PowerPoint". Pick one day during the conference that ALL presentations must be done without PowerPoint (or similar computer tools like KeyNote, for those trying to weasel around the ban!) Add a check box on the conference proposal forms that allows session chairs and participants to indicate their willingness to present sans PowerPoint and go from there. As a bonus, you get monetary and environmental gains from eliminating the projectors and associated technologies from the conference sessions for one day.

So, I beg all of you filling out evaluation forms at ACM or AAM to write "A Day Without PowerPoint" on each one you turn in, or better yet look for ways to eliminate PowerPoint from YOUR next talk!

Have some presentation tips or tricks you'd like to share? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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  1. I've been able to attend a couple of pecha kucha nights here in San Francisco, and I have to admit, it's a pretty cool process and ripe for using at places like ASTC where multiple presenters are sharing time. It forces you to (a) focus on big ideas (b) move between ideas briskly and (c) think visually. You can also tell who's put work into their 6+ minute session ~ if you're not really on top of it, the slides start to overtake your talk **quickly**. Plus, you KNOW at the end how much time you'll have for questions & dialogue.

    Great ideas, Paul!

  2. The flipside of this is the tech conferences I occasionally go to in which the presenters are just on a panel, no slides, woefully unprepared and just gabbing about their thoughts. In many cases, it's as fatuous as the PPT-enabled presentations, WITHOUT any of the useful links or images one can see onscreen.

    I think we need a balance. People should really use images/PPT/etc to demonstrate that which is best articulated visually. Doesn't matter if you spend 20 seconds or 2 minutes if the slide (or what you are saying) is a waste of time. In general, everyone (including me) could talk less.

    I'm working on AAM sessions in which the group of presenters is all working together to make a single presentation that is more cohesive and has more (hopefully) to say to an audience rather than just talking our own projects. The downside of this is that it is pretty challenging to coordinate.

    Conference formats I'd like to see more of:
    --thoughtful narratives/stories that are performative
    --a little talking, then force the audience to write things down or ask questions, then more talking, then question-writing--more of a working session

  3. I was appalled by the low quality of many of the presentations at the one AAM conference I've attended (Boston). But I don't think the problem is powerpoint, per se. Rather, it seemed to me that many people lacked any training or experience in public speaking. Banning powerpoint or imposing another presentation style isn't going to help the person who speaks in a rapid monotone or doesn't prepare for the needs of a listener rather than a reader. But a workshop on public speaking might!

  4. Any suggestions for replacing, if at all, PowerPoint or slides in talks/lectures about visually-rich topics such as astronomy?

  5. Hi Nina,

    Of course, as you indicate, the best-case scenario is one with well-prepared presenters with interesting things to share.

    However, PowerPoint seems to lend itself to more telling than sharing.

    Also, all the alternative formats you mention all would seem to work best without PowerPoint, no? ;-)

  6. Hi Paolo,

    I attended many sessions of a group called "The Lowbrow Astronomers" while in college. They always used NASA slides and video, but the format really encouraged questions and conversations with the audience rather than a lecture.

    As noted by "Anonymous" above, public speaking techniques may be more important than technology!

  7. I present for a living and what I've found is that it has everything to do with the presenter and less about the technology behind it.

    I viewed the Pecha-Kucha video, and what "I" saw could have been "PowerPoint" slides with 20 second timings in between them.

    I don't see why you are calling for a BAN of PowerPoint. What I think you should be concentrating on is simply a ban on boring slides and boring presentations in general.

    PowerPoint is easy for non-technical people to use. It allows you to create a visual presentation with minimal effort... And that is probably the underlying reasons as to why you've called this "ban." Unfortunately, some of us just aren't creative, don't have the resources, or the time to come up with kitschy and "cool" presenations.

    Some people are also visual learners and may need to see text on a screen instead of pictures.

    Ultimately it's up to a good presenter to make the talk more interactive.

  8. PowerPoint is a tool, nothing more, although that is not how the majority of people use it. In art history, we use PowerPoint like we used to use slides - a means to project images of works of art. If you want to throw in the title/artist/date, fine, but that is all. Periodically, slides with big points help the audience focus, particularly for note taking.

    Instead, many people use it as a crutch, often to cover for lack of preparation.

    Also, if not put together right, presentations without Ppt, and just with lots of audience participation can be so boring! I went to one like this at my state museum conference last year, and it was the biggest waste of time. (Also, what's the value of being a facilitator of such a presentation? One should be forced to put on their CV: "I allowed a bunch of people to babble for an hour and a half on ____ subject.")

  9. This is an interesting post. I'd like to add to it. I hope I do it justice!

    A few thoughts...

    1) I've found Power Point to be as useful a tool for the preparation of a presentation as for actually presenting it - and sometimes even more useful for that purpose. In my experience, developing the content and "flow" of a presentation with a group of people responsible for the work that is being presented is facilitated by the use of Power Point. Power Point allows all those with an interest in conveying the ideas about the project, innovation, or research to be sure that their voices are heard and that the information that is conveyed is consistent with their perspectives on it.

    2) I think Pecha-Kucha would be a great tool to add to the arsenal of presentation approaches. However, in developing a presentation, I usually try to pare my slides down to the bare minimum - to be used only when needed. Requiring 20 slides in a rapid succession might leave me feeling a bit rushed as a presenter, *and* as a consumer of the presentation.

    3) For a recent presentation, I toyed around with the idea of developing far more slides than I needed, but developing them along different interest paths. The presentation was about the results of a research study, so I thought I would create a path for the methods, a path for the results, and a path for the implications. If I had done that (I didn't - chickened out!), I would have started by asking the audience what they came to hear, and hopefully I'd have had a path to pursue to respond to what they needed or wanted. Ideally, I could just jump into the path to address the specific questions/expectations and then ask somebody else. So I would have flipped back and forth between slides, perhaps in the order I developed them, but perhaps jumping to what was most relevant for the audience.

    4) Finally, as a consumer of conference presentations, I kind of like hearing what the presenter has to say. I don't mind sitting through a presentation or a series of presentations. As a learner, I've come to the session with a context for understanding what the presenters say. I find the Power Point presentation to be a good way to get the basics of the project/research through both auditory and visual modes. I'm not so sure I'm in the session to create or to interact - at least not until I have a good baseline understanding of the ideas the presenter(s) want to convey.

  10. Just to stir the pot a little more... (nice to hear from so many PowerPoint lovers!)

    The reason I call for a BAN (at least rhetorically) of PowerPoint, is that having been on several program committees where we have strongly nudged folks in the direction of alternative formats and not using computers ---that has gone nowhere, at least 90% of the presentations still (ab)use PPT.

    I'm afraid PowerPoint is a bit too ingrained.

    While I agree wholeheartedly that well-prepared, congenial speakers will almost always carry the day regardless of which technologies they employ, I still strongly contend that PowerPoint is an ENABLER of poor speakers and poor presentations.

    Personally, I like the idea of "A Day Without PowerPoint" just to provide attendees a basis for comparison, and letting us hone in on more specific approaches towards improving all conference presentations.

    Really, what's the downside?

  11. PowerPoint also lulls the presenter into thinking they can use the same presentation for multiple meetings. I've seen lots of PowerPoints that seem like they were developed for another audience and are being presented in the original form because the presenter didn't have the time or inclination to tailor the presentation appropriately. If only there were a way for conference organizers to say "please, no recycled presentations."

  12. Paul
    Memorable presentations I have experienced in my career include HUMOR/AUTHENTICITY/SIMPLICITY and INTERACTION and once yes once a PPT show (gulp). Actually I use PPT creatively as a visual support but NOT with WORDS. As for astronomy I remember, I think it was in Rochester a hundred years ago, a wonderful planetarium show. Whispering voices in the seats speakers prepared the audience for a NEW and unique planetarium presentation. A woman whispered "when do they open the roof" her husband responds "they don't open the roof they project on the roof" with that a loud rumble ensues and via projection the roof seems to open and a crack of sky appears in the roof getting wider and wider to reveal the full night sky. Memorable and Humorous/ and it went on from there. Don't know how educational it was but Memorable?/ You bet. Keep up the great work.


  13. Paul,

    A noble thought, indeed. However, the timeliness of your request is not realistic as this is a request just one day prior to the conference. I highly doubt someone would read this and change their entire presentation at this point.

    Powerpoint is an effective tool.

    I, for one, would suggest that instead of a "Day Without Powerpoint" that we suggest that consultants and any 'vendor' with a product to sell remain locked in the exhibit hall and not lead or be a part of presentations.

  14. I served on the program committee for one of the regional museum associations for 5 years. We were always looking for new and engaging ways to help colleagues learn from one another. Talking heads panels [three people from three museums talking about how each museum did X] is the standard format [and now everyone uses PPT to show slides of what they did].

    We found that workshops, where people get to do something, even very quickly, were always more popular sessions at the annual meeting. One year there was a session on distance learning that included a demonstration.

  15. Hi Richard,

    My hopes are not for this year, but future conferences. I just thought I'd "plant a seed" while many folks will be attending and thinking about the ACM and AAM conferences.

    However, maybe I've inspired a little sharpening up of PPT presentations this year!

  16. Paul,
    Thanks for sharing this. It will be especially helpful as I am preparing to put on a conference.

    I am looking for ways to encourage effective communication in limited time. I find my two greatest challenges to effective conference workshops are: 1) Long lead time on proposals - ASTC is 10 months away from the proposal deadline, so what is the chance that my workshop in October 2008 will match my work from December 2007?

    2) Coordination with partner presenters - We are not being paid for our time to present, so it is often lowest priority to coordinate what we say and make sure it is succinct.

    I think rules like pecha-kucha would encourage this, but they also have to come with some level of compensation for the additional time required to streamline. I am trying to figure out how to encourage such streamlining while still respecting presenters' time and efforts. After all, presenters are usually respected leaders with much to share - that is why we ask them to present.

  17. AAM's recent change to having speakers preload their powerpoint shows onto a central aam computer adds to the problem. Any effort on the presenter's part to make the show interesting looking can be undone as you must use the standard limited number of typefaces. I think they even have suggested typefaces, sizes and they are champions of black type on a white background. It seems they are on a mission to perpetuate butt ugly presentations.

  18. In an attempt to avoid giving another PPT-heavy presentation, the presenters for my session decided to share a few pictures of our museums at the beginning, to give the audience some background, and then the rest of the session was planned to be hands-on and interactive. Unfortunately, the ACM event planners told us that there were too many people planning to attend our session, so they couldn't remove any chairs to give us space for the hands-on activities! This was unfortunate, but we just couldn't give up on the hands-on portion, so people had very cramped quarters for working. Now I know that in future years, those of us who want to do hands-on interactives will have to be much more proactive with the planning committee to ensure that we have the appropriate amount of space. After lugging all of those materials through airports, etc., I can understand that a PPT would have been much *lighter* anyway! :)

  19. Does it not follow that we also consider banning IT from exhibits of real things?